Liked the movie, loved the sequel!

Follow-up movies usually adhere to the laws of diminishing returns - both artistically and at the box office. So why are sequels this summer a smash with audiences and critics alike?

Did the world really need "Return to the Planet of the Apes," or "Jaws 2," or "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over"?

Can anyone keep their memories of "Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers" and "Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers" from overlapping just a little?

Can anyone figure out why "Final Destination" was followed by "Final Destination 2" a few years later? Shouldn't the first have been titled "Penultimate Destination" instead?

It's no wonder that many moviegoers are wary of sequels. In most cases, follow-up movies fare less well than their predecessors at the box-office because they're usually little more than cash-ins rushed into production to capitalize on the success of the first film.

But are sequels reversing their bad reputation? "Shrek 2" is funnier - if less original - than "Shrek," and "Spider-Man 2" has been smashing box-office records as effortlessly as its hero bashes the bad guys. "Spidey bow leaves no room for competish," proclaims a headline in Variety, the entertainment trade paper.

Universal Pictures hopes "The Bourne Supremacy," opening Friday, will be an even bigger blockbuster than 2002's "The Bourne Identity." The prequel "Exorcist: The Beginning," due next month, expects to revive a story that hasn't fared well since the 1973 original. Offbeat director Richard Linklater shows that even art films can have sequels in "Before Sunset," which revisits the characters of "Before Sunrise" nine years later.

Movies such as "Spider-Man 2" and "Before Sunset" are leading some to proclaim a substantial uptick in sequel quality. Is this a lasting trend or a momentary blip?

"There were never any laws that sequels have to be bad," says Harlan Jacobson, proprietor of Talk Cinema, a network of movie clubs. "One explanation for what seems like [higher] quality may simply be that the current crop derives from more complex material than the comic-book cycle that generated sequels beginning in the late '70s."

Some would put the "Harry Potter" series in this category. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is widely considered the best installment in that saga so far - thanks to the willingness of director Alfonso Cuarón - replacing series originator Chris Columbus - to take the tale in spooky new directions.

Related to all this is the success of trilogies, starting with the first three "Star Wars" pictures. "The Lord of the Rings" is comprised of three movies filmed in one colossal shoot, then tweaked by director Peter Jackson before their separate release dates. In my view, the opening "Fellowship of the Ring" fails to meet a challenge facing the first chapters of all trilogies: offering a satisfying last scene while pointing the way to further installments. But everyone agrees Mr. Jackson's tweaking paid off in the long run, since the concluding "Return of the King" is the most exciting of the bunch.

Mr. Jacobson finds this another good argument for the validity of sequels.

"It may simply be that 'Lord of the Rings' at nine hours ... is the right way to treat an epic novel," he says, "instead of the gross condensation that's befallen other epics in the past. It was a terrific gamble by New Line Cinema, but they weren't making three stories - just one long story carefully [started] in the first installment and then attenuated beautifully."

Whatever your view of this season's batch, it's a film-historical fact that sequels have often appeared in successful, seemingly unstoppable, cycles.

Examples include the "Frankenstein" films of the '30s, the "Thin Man" mysteries of the '40s, the "Francis the Talking Mule" fantasies of the '50s, the early James Bond epics and "Pink Panther" comedies of the '60s, the "Godfather" and "Star Wars" movies of the '70s, and the first "Mad Max" pictures in the '80s.

In some cases, the sequel was actually better than the original. This is certainly true for "The Bride of Frankenstein" of 1935, and "The Godfather Part II" of 1974, beautiful blends of the familiar and the unexpected.

"The Bride of Frankenstein" let the monster speak and added two great characters, the creepy Dr. Pretorius and the bride herself. "The Godfather Part II" was both a sequel and a prequel, oscillating between the title character's early life and the later experiences of his son and heir. "Spider-Man 2" also combines old and new ingredients, retaining the hero and heroine while adding a subtler, scarier bad guy played by Alfred Molina.

Some have suggested that hiring a new director is the surest way to keep a series fresh, especially when multiple sequels are in the picture. In a recent column, Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for Variety, notes that big-name auteurs have often failed to revive franchises - as when John Boorman made "Exorcist II: The Heretic" in 1977 and Richard Lester took on "Butch and Sundance: The Early Days" in 1979. At the same time, though, Mr. McCarthy gives "real credit" to Warner Bros. for recruiting Mr. Cuarón to "rethink the ['Harry Potter'] material from the ground up."

Not everyone thinks sequels are having a new golden age. "I normally loathe sequels," says Gerald Peary, a Suffolk University film professor and a reviewer for the Boston Phoenix. "I must be the only critic in the world who stopped going after the first 'Rings' movie. And even a talented filmmaker couldn't stop me from bolting from the latest 'Harry Potter.' "

Even a skeptic like Dr. Peary has soft spots, however. He calls "Spider-Man 2" a "lovely surprise" and praises "the other really fine recent sequel: 'Terminator 3,' dark and genuinely weird."

My favorite sequels include "Addams Family Values" and "Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home," which are at least as good as the originals. I also think "Exorcist II" is an underrated gem, although director Boorman's artful twists and turns confused the movie's own studio so much that Warner Bros. recalled it for an instant reediting job after it had been released.

"Bourne Supremacy" director Paul Greengrass recently said "The challenge with sequels is to take the story into new territory, not leave the characters in the same place or redo the first movie."

If only it were that clean and simple!

Still, high-quality sequels may have a future. "Hollywood producers can be savvy if not innovative about nurturing and extending the brand," Jacobson says. "It's good business - even Detroit figured out it had to build quality cars!"

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